Why Orcas Island?
While we usually go for palm trees and sandy beaches, this Pacific Northwest island offers a different kind of paradise. With emerald-green forests surrounded by the topaz-blue Salish Sea, Orcas has been called "the Gem of the San Juan Islands." Sheltered from Pacific storms by Vancouver Island and surrounding snowcapped mountains, the island is also blessed with clear skies most of the year. The main town of East- sound feels as comfortable as a warm hearth.
Life of an Expat
"The closest lights we can see from our place are nine miles away on South Pender, a Canadian island -- and if they're reading this, I'd really appreciate it if they'd turn them off," says Bob Friel, who lives on Orcas Island with wife Sandi in a Douglas fir-and-madrona cabin on five acres of waterfront property. "We face west, looking out on the Salish Sea and more than 20 San Juan and Gulf islands, layered all the way to the horizon. We get the best summer sunsets in the world, with spectacular color in the sky for hours."
Islands have long been an essential part of Bob's life, having lived everywhere from Manhattan island to the Caymans to the Maldives. Bob brought his passion for islands to his job when he worked for seven years as editor in chief of Caribbean Travel & Life magazine in Orlando, Florida.
But a 2002 trip to Canada's Vancouver Island turned Bob's attention to the Pacific Northwest. "I fell in love with it -- the old-growth trees, the moss, the whales, the tide pools, the rocky beaches," he says. When immigrating to Canada proved too complicated, Bob looked slightly south of the border. "When I searched for a place similar to Vancouver Island in the U.S. -- ta-da! I found the San Juan Islands," he says. Within that archipelago, Orcas Island was the best fit. "Orcas is the most environmentally diverse, with mountains for hiking, hidden lakes for fishing, fjord-like sounds for kayaking and nice, pebbly beaches," Bob says. "There's also a great mix of people -- from Hollywood bigwigs and Microsoft millionaires to crabbers and permaculture farmers."
Bob, 45, and Sandi, 42, bought their dream property in 2003. Less than four years later they packed up Murphy, their Leonberger, and drove from Florida to join this eclectic community full-time. Bob continues to juggle projects as a freelance photographer and writer and is finishing a book on his adventures in the Maldives. But he still has time for the beauty of his new island home. "It never fails that within a few seconds of looking out the window, a bald eagle will fly by or a harbor seal will launch into a tail slap," Bob says. "There's plenty of inspiration."
Facts of Life
- Climate: Temperate
- Population of island: 4,593
- Population of main town, Eastsound: 3,217
- House starting price: High $200,000s
- Travel from US: Take a one-hour flight from Seattle or a 45- to 75-minute ferry from Anacortes, Washington.
- Closest hospital: Anacortes
- Price of local beer: $6 for a 22-ounce bottle of Elysian Brewing Company ESB
- Language: English
- Ease of immigration: Couldn't be easier
- Ease of buying a home: Easy
- Website: guidetosanjuans.com
- $ Two-bedroom home with large deck, wood stove and cedar siding: $345,000.
- $$ Three-bedroom, 1890s homestead in Deer Harbor with fruit trees, wetlands and woodlands: $597,000.
- $$$ Four-bedroom, timber-frame home on 10 acres w/ hot tub, sauna & private pebble beach: $4.3 million.